That’s the thing about this city… It bites! It mercilessly sticks its teeth in your skin and sends thousands of little ice pins to cast their freezing spell all over your body. No amount of body armor can stop your breath from hanging like a dying cobweb in the air around you. Small teary puddles gather at the corners of your eyes as they try to get accustomed to the cold. Now you comprehend the genius work that Mother Nature had put into the creation of the human body. If you’ve ever wondered why your tears are salty – it’s so that they don’t freeze the moment you open your windows to the world on a polar winter night. A night that wraps itself around you and sends its sharp pointy fingers disguised as snowy mountain cliffs to draw you into its chilly embrace.
You remember reading Andersen’s Snow Queen as a child. Now, as an adult, you are experiencing it firsthand. Like the queen from the tale, the scenery is terrifying but also extremely beautiful. You look down towards the bay in search of any kind of movement. The city is still. Even the waters touching the shore are frozen, having taken a firm grip of the land. You huddle deeper into the layers of thermal underwear, wool sweaters, and a balaclava that reaches almost all the way down to your heels. You squeeze your eyes shut for a second and try to visualize the warmth of a tropical island. Why did you have to come in the dead of winter? And just like that, your question is answered. Because there she comes, in all her splendor and glory, her emerald dress shimmering in hues that seem out of this world. There she is, majestically treading the starry night sky – Aurora!
Your gaze follows the lights spreading over the valley. The flow of cool air in your mouth tells you you’re gaping. Your arms hang freely and you seem to have completely forgotten the fact that you are holding a camera in your right hand. It’s no good. No camera can do justice to the playful northern lights before your eyes. Eyes that you are now afraid to shut, thinking that the ethereal sight might disappear, thinking that all it takes to chase it away is the whiff of a magician’s wand. Aurora’s mystery entraps you and you lose track of time. You need to savor this moment, to drink it all in, and imprint it on your brain; then save it in a tiny little cabinet at the back of your head, and hide it in a secret place to which you and only you know the way. After all, it was you that had to fly to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement. It was you that had to fight the grappling cold and the clench of the temperatures of twenty-five degrees below zero. If anyone else wants to see her, better have the courage to replicate the whole experience.
You are lost in thought, in your own micro cosmos, when a voice calls you from the distance, “Hey! Hungry yet? Better get inside.”
The magical bond is broken. You turn around and reply, “Oh, I haven’t realized it was already time for dinner. Here it’s so difficult to know what time it is.”
“Yes. Also, you’ll freeze if you stay much longer outside. Come on!” Your uncle smiles as he comes to meet you halfway. He stands next to you and looks at the sky, “Marvelous, isn’t she? Don’t worry, you’ll see her again later. But now we need to eat.”
You follow him reluctantly, stopping every couple of meters to look back at the surreal painting in the night sky. He is right though, as confirmed by your gurgling belly. You hurry and catch up with him right when he’s about to enter the restaurant.
Once you are inside Gruvelageret, the warm welcome (both literally and figuratively) helps you shake off all icy memories from the outside world in a matter of seconds. The authentic wooden interior, the original chandeliers, the booming fire, and the metal artifacts scattered all over the place are without a doubt the ambassadors that take you back to a different era – back in time when this city was just a small coal-mining town. Despite the rustic interior, the restaurant is cozy and you’re lucky to be seated right next to a large window that lets you keep an eye on Aurora without having to experience all the negative side effects.
Your uncle starts telling you about his day at the harbor but you find it hard to focus. You know you have to be polite and participate in the conversation. You have been missing him too, and he must be overjoyed at seeing family after being on his own up north for years. But Aurora is powerful… much like the Snow Queen, she has cast her spell over you and it is hard to let go. At least, that is the case until you hear the word “reindeer” mentioned by your waitress.
“NO! Really?” You are not prepared for this. “You want to tell me I can order a dish of one of Santa’s travel buddies?”
Your uncle laughs, “Yes, dried and smoked reindeer meat. It’s a delicacy! You should try it! You eat jamon, right?”
“Well, yeah… But this is REINDEER!”
“It’s not that different, you know. And goes great with red wine.” He winks at the waitress, “A bottle of Rioja, please.” Then he turns to you, “You didn’t think I’ll make you drink some funny local wine, did you?”
“It hadn’t even crossed my mind!” You pretend to think for a moment, “What would it be made out of anyway? Reindeer droppings?”
“Mind that language! At least not at the table!” He pretends to scold you but you know he’s enjoying your childish joke the same way he would if you were still five years old.
“Well, you know…” You shrug it off and start peeling off layers of clothes. It has gotten much warmer and nicer since you came inside the restaurant.
“By the way, the rest of the menu is seafood and vegetables, so no more surprises. I promise.” He reassures you and then adds, “However, I do confirm Tripadvisor’s rating of this place. I personally know the chef and I’m prepared to swear that his is the best food I’ve ever tasted!”
“Yeah… I could already tell just by looking at the prices,” you roll your eyes.
“You’d have to stop making those comparisons. The prices are pretty normal for Norway,” your uncle explains patiently. “Besides, dinner is on me!”
“No, you don’t have to! I’m already staying for free at your place. Let me treat you to this one!” You quickly add, “Forget what I’ve just said. I’m ordering the most expensive wine next.”
“Are you sure? No taksies backsies!” He replies jokingly just as the waitress is pouring down your first glasses of red.
“Sure! I’ve been doing quite OK lately. I don’t know why I keep counting my pennies. Old habits, I guess…”
Before you are able to get philosophical on the subject of money, you see your uncle shifting his gaze to something behind you. His mouth stretches into a wide smile, “And here comes the man himself! Meet Filip, the Master Chef I was telling you about.”
The person who has just walked up to your table looks nothing like the image you’d had in your mind. He’s not a tall bulky blond Norwegian, but a slim dark-haired boy that doesn’t look older than twenty-something. He gives your uncle a friendly pat on the back, “I know I’m the best but no need to make me blush in front of your guest.” He lowers his voice to a more polite register not to disturb the customers at the neighboring tables. “How’s it going? What do you think of Longyearbyen? Cold, huh?”
You look at the pile of clothes on the bench next to you and give out a nervous laugh, “Ha-ha… yeah. Cold might be an understatement. But it’s beautiful – the colorful houses, the fjord, the mountains… The northern lights…”
Your uncle interjects, “This one couldn’t stop staring at Aurora for an hour earlier. Almost forgot we had a reservation.”
“I can understand that,” Filip says. “I was also like that the first time I came here. We, photographers, are trained to always search for the SHOT.”
“You are also a photographer?” you ask. “A chef AND a photographer?”
“Well, despite what they say about Svalbard, it’s not exactly a year-round destination. There are still whole months I get time off, and this is when I focus on my other passion. So, you have your camera with you?”
“Yes,” you are forced to once again look apologetically at the mountain of textile. “It’s somewhere underneath all this…”
“Ha-ha! I see. Have you seen the vault yet? You can take pretty spectacular pictures over there.”
“The Global Seed Vault,” your uncle explains. “It holds samples of seeds from all over the world. In case there is some great crisis or something, or if aliens attack.” He laughs at his own joke, “It looks a bit like a spaceship. Maybe it’s intentional – to distract those aliens, you know.”
As your curiosity is being stirred even more, you notice a commotion happening around the restaurant’s entrance. Filip excuses himself and heads over there to see what’s going on. There is some discussion with the hostess at the door, after which he is back with a slightly worried expression.
“Well, guys, you’re either very lucky or extremely unlucky. We might have to stay inside the restaurant longer than expected…”
“Why? What’s going on?” your uncle asks. “Not that I’d mind enjoying some of your famous king crab the whole night if need be…”
“Looks like a polar bear has been spotted in town. It’s very unusual, but it has started happening more and more lately. I guess global warming might have something to do with it. They are being forced out of their habitat and start coming down to the cities in search of food.”
“A polar bear!?” Your eyes get wide as if the beast himself has just announced its presence to you. “Well… earlier you were saying something about the perfect SHOT…”
“Don’t even think about it!” The young chef cuts you off bluntly. “These animals are extremely dangerous. Until the situation is resolved, no one should leave.” He swiftly softens his tone. “I’m sorry guys. I’d have to be heading back to the kitchen. Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while, and I bet that bear might have some competition in terms of hunger soon. Anyway, not the worst lockdown scenario.” Before he disappears, he quickly makes the “phone me” gesture with his hand, “By the way, tomorrow I have a day off. Call me and I can take you to some really cool sites not even your uncle knows about!”
“Thank you!” He’s gone and your words quickly subside to a whisper deafened by the restaurant atmosphere that has gotten animated by conversations about the recent news.
“So, what do you think?” Your uncle looks at you across the table and relaxes back into his seat, raising his glass. “I’m voting 'lucky'. We’ve lived through a pandemic; we can definitely survive being locked up in a restaurant for a night. You were saying something about a second bottle of wine I believe…”